At the Schoolhouse Door - Empty Chairs

October 12, 2012
By Chris Hill


There has been a lot of talk about empty chairs this political season. Clint Eastwood spoke to an empty chair representing President Barack Obama during the Republican National Convention. The North Carolina NAACP is placing an empty chair on a stage at its state convention because Republican gubernatorial nominee Pat McCrory is not going to appear to debate Democratic nominee Walter Dalton.

By far, the most disappointing empty chairs will be those at the Upper Room Christian Academy in Raleigh. The school, which is run by the Upper Room Church of God in Christ, will no longer have a middle school or high school.

The empty chairs at Upper Room Christian Academy bring up many issues about our public schools. First and most immediate, the students who were enrolled must scramble to find a school to attend. Assuming most of the students are Wake County residents, if they try to enroll in public schools, they will have to register in Wake County schools. Anyone following the news about Wake County Public Schools knows there has been major trouble with enrolling students this year because of the “choice plan.” They also know about the transportation debacle with buses either showing up late or not at all. The former Upper Room students may have to become a part of that world.

The second issue that the school closing brings up is the future of our public schools. The past legislative sessions have seen sweeping education reform, the removal of the cap for charter schools, tax credits for students with disabilities to attend private schools and a voucher plan. Only the voucher plan failed to pass in the 2011-2012 biennium. 

The voucher plan proposed would have allowed corporations to donate their tax share to a scholarship granting organization, which would then provide a scholarship for a low-income child to go to a private school, even a private religious institution. This would not have been a tax credit or a write-off, it would have been a dollar-for-dollar tax break; the corporations would have completed their tax responsibility to the state. This means money that could go to essential government functions, including schools, would be used instead to send students to a private institution.

The executive director of the Upper Room Christian Academy, John Amanchuwu, was quoted in the News & Observer as saying that the closing of the middle school and high school “was a matter of profitability.” It has been said before but bears repeating—schools are not businesses and children are not widgets. Schools cannot be run with profit more in the minds of the leaders than the creative and critical thinking of students.

Perhaps, Mr. Amanchukwu meant the school would not be sustainable. If he did mean profit, however, then it needs to be acknowledged that children’s education should not be about creating profit but creating good citizens.

According to the News & Observer, Upper Room’s tuition was $5,500 per year. The voucher plan that was proposed would have only provided $4,000 scholarships. Even if a low-income student received the scholarship, that student’s parents would still have to provide another $1,500. By definition, low-income families cannot afford that.

At the same time the legislature proposed that plan, it cut funding to public schools.

It should not be the responsibility of parents to dig into their pockets for money when the North Carolina General Assembly has the constitutional responsibility of providing a sound basic education for every student in the state. The legislature does not have the constitutional responsibility to create tax breaks for corporations. Rather than trying to shirk the responsibility of providing a high-quality education and passing the 4,000 bucks off to private schools, the legislature needs to get serious about funding public schools.

One of the most important things to the academic success of a student is parental involvement. If a parent has to get another job because the legislature would rather provide the parents with some of the money for school rather than providing a free and appropriate public education, then it is less likely that parent will be involved.

Parents who want to send their children to private religious schools should have that choice. That choice is for the parents. When the next session of the legislature comes, a similar voucher bill will be proposed. The legislature should not make the choice to fund private schools at the expense of the public education system they are constitutionally mandated to maintain.

The government does not have the responsibility to try to fill empty chairs in a private school. It is responsible for filling the minds of public school students with the skills it takes not only to be strong workers but also, and most importantly, to be good citizens.    

Chris Hill, Education & Law Project Director quoted in News & Observer in story about gubernatorial candidates’ views on education

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